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Thursday, December 20, 2012

Christmas before Christ

Here’s a little seasonal guessing game: “Who am I thinking of?” Use reason or ESP, whichever works best for you. 
Whose birth by a virgin is celebrated just over three weeks from today (25 Dec.)?
Whose birth was heralded by a star in the east, and was adored by three kings?
Who started teaching at the age of 12, started a ministry at 30, had 12 disciples, with whom he travelled performing miracles?
Who was buried for three days after being executed.
Give up? His name was Horus, a predynastic upper-Egyptian man-god, who was worshipped all around the pagan world until Greco-Roman times. Here he is:
Or, if you subtract the star and 3 kings detail, it could be Mithra, and Indo-Iranian man-god whose worship was again co-opted by the Romans, lasting from antiquity until the second century AD:

Or subtract one or two other age-related details, and it could be the pagan Greek god Dionysus:

Or the pagan Phrygian god Attis:

Wait a minute….you mean the Jesus story that followed these may have been (gasp) a copyright infringement??

For most of the man-god stories I’ve mentioned, the melting pot of the Rome empire seems to have provided the common ground on which they could all meet. Humanity thinks in narrative. The story of the man-god I’ve named goes back beyond the dawn of recorded history. It’s a tale, it seems, whose broad outlines and lineaments are as old as time itself. Stories—especially ones that meet with success, circulate, and get told and re-told and adapted and changed to suit the times and the teller and the audience, and the cultural exchange the Roman empire enabled, meant this successful story became normative, and so flowed and morphed quite freely. Copyright was not yet known. As Montaigne said,

“Oh senseless man, who cannot possibly make a worm or a flea
and yet will create Gods by the dozen!”

All these ancient man-gods share the virgin birth and resurrection with Jesus, and all share the 25th of December—NH winter solstice—as the date on which that miraculous birth is celebrated. Most religious scholars agree that (based on datings from other events referred to in the gospels) Jesus himself had to have been born in the spring, not winter. So the nativity of Jesus would appear to be a newish, Jewish incarnation of an ancient, proto-human narrative, and Christmas a pagan ritual that got baptised somewhere along the Roman way.

The ancients used to say, “Tell me where you come from and I’ll tell you who you are.” They had this idea that the origins of something will tell us a lot about it. So what are the origins of this man-god nativity story? What is at the root, the very root, of a story of a god becoming a man, an “incarnation”? Moreover, what persistent human need does it serve or address? Does the simple tenacity of this story (through many millennia and cultures) necessarily make it worthy of our attention and our worship? Or are we confusing the tenacious with the worthy?

We need to be careful about what we deem worthy. “Worship” simply means the raising to worth of something—literally ‘worth-ship’. But there is a huge difference between worship and idolatry. Idolatry is the worship of a representation of what is essentially intangible. Remember the ‘graven (engraved) images’ the ten commandments caution us to avoid making: statues, relics, icons? It’s not warning against false idols, but ANY idols, or rather that all idols are false because they are representations. Like representations engraved in stone, the worship of representations in stories can also become idolatrous if we take the story as holy in ITSELF, and so has to be experienced in its pure, preserved form, because the story is literally true. Scriptural literalism is a form of Idolatry, and is THE most recognisable trait in any religious fundamentalism, that elaborate practice which seems designed to utterly miss the point. And I venture to say that this distinction  between worship (worth-ship) and idolatry, is one of the chief difference that distinguishes UUs and their worship from mainstream Christians.
So, what is the intangible thing itself that all these incarnation stories represent to us—something to do with the wonder of death and rebirth and the winter solstice—what is IN THIS that UUs might raise to worth? And does it finally have anything particularly to do with a long-dead Palestinian? (What--haven’t there been enough freshly dead ones to occupy our attention and concern?) And in these southern climes, where we are nearer the summer solstice, however can WE Australasians respond to this winter’s tale in any way that nourishes us?

It would perhaps by safe to suggest that solstice—the shortest day of the NH year—is something that would have really focussed the attention of our ancestors. Solstice was the longed-for day when they had long ago noticed that daylight begins to increase, the beginning of the end of the long cold lonely winter, and the promise of rebirth just around the corner. Fields most fallow, and perhaps frozen, were no longer looked on as dearth, but now as potential. And having been so tied to the cycles of the earth from whence they arose, the fulfilment of this long anticipation was experienced as something so essential, so vital, so basic, that it must have seemed creation itself was restored to its inherent rightness, and man with it. Saved, again! The returning of the sun meant Heaven on earth, peace and plenty. Emmanuel: a word which means “God with us.” My God, what would they DO BUT celebrate the coming of midwinter? And as in any celebration, we felt and feel a generalized beneficence, bearing none ill will: Good will, instead, to all people.

But alas! As is so often the case with our knuckleheaded species, certain ways of celebrating this primal relationship to the earth, of the coming of renewed life, became for some The Right Way, and thus The Only Way to observe it. The sun god became personified in different ways by different cultural groups, and of course, only OUR sun-god has the rightful claim on the day. And the right god looks like THIS and the story goes like THAT and we do THESE things on the day, or the God will be displeased, and might just decide not to come again. This is the right way because this is our way. The way IS us. Presto: literalism, idolatry. We ‘raise to worth’ the representation, rather than the life-giving force it represents. And so by this gradual declension, the ‘sun god’ became in one particular context, the ‘son of god’. But surely celebrations of solstice belong to ALL humankind, not to a particular religious practice.

The solstice celebration that has been handed down to us represented as Christmas is simply no different in its essence from all that went before. Through history, Christianity operated like the Borg in Star Trek, assimilating all it touched. It has claimed exclusive dominion over the ‘pagan’ solstice celebrations, (which, if not the ‘true meaning , is at least the original) just as it popped itself into the empty shells of pagan temples throughout the collapsed Roman Empire. Dec. 25 is not even Jesus’ real birthday, for heaven’s sake.

But we get enough of the cultish idolatry of Jesus this time of year. A far more tantalizing question is “what is the intangible we have been trying capture collectively with all these varying representations of the winter solstice celebration, since the dawn of time?” What’s at the heart of the Horus-Mithra-Attis-Dionysus-Jesus god-becomes-man nativity story? Well--Have you ever peeled an onion? Taken off layer after layer after layer, down and down into its centre? And when you do, what do you find at the centre? Not a kernel, nor a pith, instead you find….it’s all layers! O rather the layers have organised themselves around a void, a mystery. So it is with the solstice, at which God becomes flesh and blood human. Heaven touches earth. Or if you prefer, the eternal and infinite manifests itself in the here and now. Of course our ancestors, in the infancy of our species, would, at the turning of the year toward seasonal renewal, see mighty unknowable powers working to their benefit, restoring health in body and spirit. Their intense longing for this coming, magnified the experience. The cycles of the seasons, were like a game of peekaboo so beloved of infants: the parent seems to go away, and then peekaboo, returns and all is joy. And so the mysterious powers of nature take human form, incarnates, in the shape of fresh crops, full barns and full bellies, and fat gurgling healthy babies. Peace on earth instead of death and dearth.

Suddenly solstice sounds less like a story, more a like a prayer of hope and thanksgiving for that which is beyond our knowing, or controlling… the big forces in which we live and move and have our being. And although we know more now, know that the sun does not go away and come back again, we still know that the world, as we now know it, is not ALL there is. There is MORE waiting to be revealed, and where there is this awareness that there’s more waiting in heaven and earth than is dreamt of, there is that same longing, deep in us. For us the world as it is has never been enough. Solstice celebration is less an old tale, more like a humanity’s one continuing prayer to the cosmos: “O come O come Emmanuel.”

And prayers, like stories are in themselves just words, just like hymns, are just notes on a page—just symbols, until en-fleshed, incarnated, in the human voice—in the soft tissue of the vocal folds and the taut, flexing diaphragm and the sponge-y lungs. Until our fleshly human experience gives it not just sound, but sense, sensuality, and felt, experienced truth. Just as God or the eternal or the infinite cannot be apprehended until it is en-fleshed and made comprehensible.

Is it any wonder, then, that ‘tis the season of idolatry? And today, other, more contemporary, familiar and crass idols have elbowed their way into the party, including the one we commonly revile as we participate in its worship: the idols of the mercantilism, consumerist consumption, and greed.
Now, it’s become a commonplace to lament the conversion of Christmas into a festival of the marketplace. And the substitution of this new idolatry for the old sets us up for a false choice: we can either have the Nazarene sermon or the gross consumerism… as if we can be saved, rather than merely distracted, by either. As UUs, probably neither of these idols satisfy us very much. As with all such enforced choices, many, many alternatives are disappeared by these binary norms. If the history I’ve glossed today shows anything, it’s that mankind has always made and re-made the solstice celebrations in its own image. And the image of ourselves keeps changing.

So, the commercialisation, the idolatry of STUFF, at Christmas is not the problem, I feel. It’s a handy scapegoat, a way of externalising blame for what’s  really our own. All idolatry magnifies the concerns of the idolator. In the hyper-intensity of Christmas mercantilism, we see more clearly than at any other time of year that the way we live now means that most of our communications and interactions are about making us buy or buy into something, how normative and suffocating this has become. We get to see our real compulsions, magnified, at Christmas, just as our ancestors projected and magnified their real concerns in the solstice celebrations. Christmas is a mirror, and a magnifying one: it enlarges what we already are. If we do react strongly against dehumanisation, trivialisation of our values and mass-marketing of our hopes, then maybe this perception is a profound gift. If we don’t like what we see, don’t yell at the mirror. Change yourself, by changing what you worship. But choose carefully, because worship works both ways—we become what we choose to worship, and what we choose to worship can become what we are. If we worship beauty, we will never feel attractive enough. If we worship material wealth, we will never feel rich enough, if we worship youth, we always feel old, and so on. We always pay dearly for worshipping what’s cheap. Such is the power of idols.

Maybe raise your sights higher, just as our ancestors did: What is it that brings YOU a sense of hope and renewal, gives you a sense of harmony with humanity and the God of your understanding, makes your life worth the living? Make THAT what you celebrate, let THAT be magnified by your festivity. But do NOT let anyone make you feel you’re doing Christmas wrong if you don’t buy into the false choice of either the baby Jesus stuff OR the consumer orgy. If it doesn’t match perfectly the Coles/Woolworth’s TV ads of a huge loving sober family around a table groaning under the weight of lavish seasonal grub, and piles and piles of carefully-chosen and tasteful presents. There IS no right way to do Christmas/solstice, so BE CREATIVE, act from and incarnate your core values—everyone else has right from the dawn of time. A hedonistic Aussie Christmas with its beaches beers and BBQs is just as valid as one ripped straight from the pages of Dickens. If the message of compassion Jesus taught  is what gives life worth for you, celebrate by volunteering at a soup kitchen, or shelter, or hospital ward or prison. If family I what gives your life worth, surround yourself with the people who love you. If relationship to nature is what gives you meaning and connection, go to a nude beach, take off all your kit, and plunge into the Southern ocean as a kind of annual naturist baptism, do that. Or maybe a nice bush walk. If what you worship is a space of personal peace, do what a lot of people do and just get outta town. This season is OURS to make, and always has been. So let us do what we do best: incarnate what we most desire. Then are we truly renewed. Then is the essence of the solstice rediscovered. Then do we truly find the only peace on earth achievable, the peace that may reign in our own hearts and hearths. And if it reigns there, it can indeed radiate from us to all the earth.

from Black Elk:

“The first peace, which is the most important, is that which comes within the souls of people when they realize their relationship, their oneness with the universe and all its powers, and when they realize that at the center of the universe dwells the Great Spirit, and that this center is really everywhere, it is within each of us.”

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